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It recently occurred to me that my mother has never lived alone. She met my dad in college, and when she graduated, she moved to New York City to live with him. Some years went by, and they got married; some more years, and they gave birth to my brother and then to me. They celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary this week and are still palpably in love.
She’s independent in myriad other ways, but it’s still strange for me to imagine always having shared your life with someone — a partner you can lean on, but also need to compromise with. I once called my mom while my dad was away for work, and she told me that she was so excited: Since he wasn’t home, she was making herself a big kale salad for dinner.
“You wouldn’t eat kale with Dad?” I asked, laughing.
“Oh, you know Dad. Not a fan of the raw kind, so we don’t eat it much.”
Meanwhile, I’ve just moved into a studio apartment. It’s my first time living completely by myself, and I relish the sublime freedom of it. I eat lots of kale. It may sometimes be lonely, sure, and a little intimidating, but it feels like a weighty step.
We heard from almost 100 of you, all at different stages in life, who have been handling independence in some new way. One of you had just separated from a partner of 38 years; others had recently eaten at a restaurant alone for the first time. There was loss, empowerment, upheaval. We’ve included nine of your stories below.
The takeaway? We all experience being alone, sometimes of our own volition and sometimes not. But those moments — big or small — are always ripe for growth.
“As hackneyed as it sounds, I really do feel as if I get to finally be myself now that I’m on my own. It’s an insurmountable amount of pressure, yes, but it’s so liberating knowing I will be able to have those little microcosms of power: wearing what I want when I want, eating what I want when I want, sleeping on my schedule (and with whomever!), doing what I want to do without question — those small things all add up to a sensation of pure freedom. I get to be a capital-p Person. As an assault survivor, I never thought I’d be able to navigate the world with the confidence that I have now. However, it begs the question of am I ready to live a life that’s just for me? Am I prepared? That’s hard to say. In earnest, I don’t think I’ll ever 100 percent be ready — but who is?”
“I went from college to a marriage of almost 50 years to a man I used to adore and who adored me. But in 2006 he was diagnosed with a disease for which the drug cocktail he was on turned him into someone I didn’t know. For the 11 years that followed, though he was physically there he was emotionally absent, and I felt lonelier than I could imagine. I ended up creating a life without him and learned to be a widow several years ago. When he died last year, I was freed of any need to check with someone or even tell someone my plans. I’m loving my first-time single life.”
“Paying for everything, and I mean everything, on your own at 21 is hard. I’m talking car payment, insurance, phone bill, groceries, toiletries, credit card bills and — oh yeah — college tuition at a university in Philadelphia. And that doesn’t cover it all. That’s not including what it costs to stay physically fit and maintain a social life. I’m in school full time, interning twice a week and waitressing five shifts a week to pay my bills. I grew up in an extremely privileged suburban area, therefore I don’t have any friends that are financially independent, not even a little bit. My parents had a nasty divorce and we lost everything when I was 17. That makes me feel a lot more alone. I graduate undergrad this coming May. When I get that diploma in my hands, I know it will all be worth it. That won’t be just a piece of paper to me. It’ll be proof that I can do anything I want to do, I can be anything I want to be and I can do it all on my own.”
“I worked for almost three years as an assistant to an important authority in the Mexican government. At the beginning I felt that the job was amazing: It gave me the opportunity to move to Mexico City, I was learning a lot about government institutions, I had a great salary. Nonetheless, I worked every day, from Monday to Friday, for more than 10 hours each day. By the second year, I was exhausted: Basically, my work became my life. I started to notice that I wasn’t me anymore; I was sad and angry all the time and with everyone. So when the opportunity arrived, I quit my job. Believe me, it wasn’t an easy decision. But for the first time in quite a while I’m reconnecting with myself, trying again to find my own voice (in my work and my personal life). It’s scary because everyone expects me to have a steady life. But you know what? In these last months, I have realized that you are constantly evolving and that you have to accept and embrace that. Now I’m happier because I’m living every day as myself, and not planning ahead with ideas that weren’t mine.”
“When I was 23, my mom was hit by a car and sustained a brain injury. My dad was given a terminal diagnosis three months later and died last October. After a year of taking care of both of them, I’ve just moved across the country to begin grad school next week. Being alone is frightening and empowering. After having no time to care for myself while caregiving, I am my only priority and the responsibility of putting myself back together is overwhelming.”
“After over a decade of abusive or severely codependent relationships stemming from early sexual abuse, I am single for the first time. I am learning how to be with myself; in turn, I am learning that I am indispensable. I do not need to seek out what is missing in my life, rather what I have been yearning for has been inside me all along. . . . I am the only one who can give myself the love I so deserve.”
“Since I was 15, all I ever wanted to be was a festival artist. Meeting and marrying my husband who was more inclined toward performing only postponed this by about 20 years. Early into 2010 a friend posted a notice on Facebook that a very dear friend needed someone to run her shop at the renaissance festival outside of Dallas. I packed my old Ford pickup and set off alone. It turned out that I had to leave festivals to realize that that goal had never changed. I’ve become almost fiercely independent, taking great joy in accomplishing tasks that were once delegated to father, brother or husband. I am also shedding the guilt of not always putting the needs of others before my own. The time I’ve given myself has led me to some astonishing discoveries, the biggest one being that I am actually gay.”
“It’s emotionally exhausting as I’m a stay-at-home mother to three children (12, 9 and 4) and now completely on my own, with no one to help start dinner while I initiate bathtime, to back up discipline decisions or to run to the store if we run out of milk or need an emergency prescription filled. I’m the lone adult but never actually alone as I have the children about 90 percent of the time and therefore don’t have space to heal from the trauma my ex caused or deal with divorce grief. I’m the one picking up the pieces of our family and trying to raise decent human beings.”
“Watching movies in the theater was always a group event from my perspective. The first time I went to the theater by myself, I was worried about being perceived as lonely or pathetic for not having anyone to go with. When I watched ‘Girls Trip’ in a theater packed with others, there was nothing isolating about the comments, laughs and emotions I shared with the dozens of other moviegoers.”